Orca Ula, Growing Strong
Ula is a young orca that was born at Loro Parque and currently still resides there. Loro Parque is a zoological facility at the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife. Ula's mother is the orca named Morgan, who was rescued and rehabilitated in 2010 by the Dutch Dolfinarium Harderwijk after she was found weakened and emaciated in the Wadden Sea. Morgan soon became pretty famous and gained media attention, first locally but then also around the world. When it was decided Morgan was not fit for release a struggle ensued. There were two parties: The Dutch dolphinarium and its followers who wanted to rehome the animal to a permanent rehabilitation location with members of her own kind and the animal activists, who thought the Dolfinarium Harderwijk had ill intentions by keeping Morgan in captivity. Currently, Morgan has been living at her new home and permanent rehab location Loro Parque, for almost nine years. The activists never stopped fighting against the fact Morgan was not returned to the wild and still intend to release her. Through the years they have taken Loro Parque to court several times and they always lost the cases. I connected with Morgan back when she was in Harderwijk and have been visiting Morgan through the years to see how she is doing. Of which many visits were also behind the scenes. Even when she turned out to be pregnant and even when her daughter was born. I write articles and observations of what I see every time. Blogs and articles about these visits have been published many times now, both on the internet and in popular media like newspapers and magazines. On this website you can find several blogs about her as well. I recommend reading those before you read this one so you have more information and context.
How is Ula doing?
Ever since it was announced that Morgan was pregnant the internet exploded into a controversy. Activists say their point is proven now, that Morgan is just used to breed, to make more orcas and make more money. Ignoring the fact that reproducing is a very normal and important aspect in the life of a female orca. Any orca group relies heavily on social bonds and calves are a part of the group-dynamic. Besides there is no measurable increase in income whether there are five, six or eight animals in the habitat. As zoological facilities do not sell animals anymore, but instead exchange them for breeding programs there is also no money to be made on an extra animal by selling. If anything it will actually cost the park more because it is of course one more animal to feed and take care of. Apart from that there were other accusations; shortly after the birth Ula and Morgan had to be separated because Morgan did not produce enough milk. The intervention of the trainers saved Ula's life! She was already visibly getting thinner. Milk is crucial for a neonate so action had to be taken. In the wild the first birth is often unsuccessful due to a number of factors; the staff was therefore already prepared for complications and could step in fast and in the correct manner. Meanwhile Ula and Morgan have been back together for quite some time now. Animal activists say Ula is not doing well at all and even manipulate photos to prove their point! In one photo they actually adjusted the contrast to such a high level that the normally yellow tank walls turned bright orange and even red.. to make it seem like there was something wrong with Ula's skin. I take false accusations like this very seriously! Especially since there is nothing going on at all regarding Ula's health. I have been to Tenerife three times now since her birth. I have made many photos and videos of her and nothing looks like the edited ones found on the internet. Ula is healthy and there are no abnormalities to be seen. a Team of vets and experts have proven this time and time again, also in Morgan's case. To me it almost seems like animal activists wánt Ula to be unhealthy or in a bad state just to prove a point, instead of believing and being glad that she is well cared for. This is why I conducted an interview with her caretakers again. I also took a LOT of pictures in every setting, from every angle and all her body parts. These are photos without weird editing tricks so you can see how she actually looks.
Earlier I published an interview about Ula when she was born. By now she has of course grown a lot and made a lot of progress and development. I asked the following questions to her direct caretakers:
How is Ula doing at the moment?
She is doing fine, is growing like a young orca should, growth is correct compared to Adán’s growth. We have the most experience in the world with hand rearing orcas (3 animals including Ula versus 1 animal at SeaWorld) so we know what her weight and growth rate should be.
Can you tell us a bit about her character?
She is very active, playful and very bright. She is a fast learner and social.
Last year Ula had started minor training, mostly medical. How is her training progressing?
Training is going very well. She is a very good student, very focused, a good memory. She is fully medical trained now. She gave her first voluntary blood sample this morning! Her medical training involves full body exams, fecal exams etc. She is now learning to follow her trainers around. As well as learning the gates and basic behavior. Currently we are doing basic slide out training. In this she mimics the other orcas a little bit, but she is also a bright learner on her own. It is kind of like homework to her, we can see her practicing things after the training.
Does she partake in shows and/or presentations?
She is in shows and presentation sometimes. Not every day and in very small segments. She gets excited and energetic in behavior when she gets to do this. Some people criticize us for having her in a show, but animals don’t differentiate normal training sessions and shows. To them it is all positive reinforcement. Refusing to do shows with the animals for political reasoning could cause stress/ harm as the animal would get frustrated if she cannot participate and others can.
Does Ula already consume bits of fish yet?
She is now on a 100% fish diet. She eats 11kg a day and currently weighs 510 kg. There is not much experience in zoological facilities about transferring diet from milk to fish. In fact we probably have the most experience in this, so it’s learning process.
How is the relationship between Ula and Morgan currently?
It was an Interesting transition. Morgan seems to see Ula as her baby and even tries to protect her a bit. Ula does not seem to think of Morgan as her parent. The trainers took this role in the beginning of her life. They do spend a lot of time together.
There was a time Ula was afraid of going through the gate to enter the show pool. Kohana ‘scooped’ her up, as we call it. Morgan allowed this. So she seems to accept Kohana interacting with Ula, while typically a mother would protect her baby more.
Has Ula met all the other orcas?
Yes she has. She has met all the orcas and they all interact as a group.
How did the introduction go?
In steps. We introduced her to one animal at a time. she interacts really good in the group. When all gates are open this also goes really well.
Does Ula have a preferred orca as company?
Her mother for sure. The two swim together all the time.
What is Ula’s place in the hierarchy currently?
She is currently the lowest in the hierarchy. Adan is low in hierarchy, so he is a bit rough with her. This is his way to try climbing up in the hierarchy. Because Ula is a female she likely will surpass Adan soon and at age 5 she will probably be higher than all the males.
Does Ula respond well to trainers now that she interacts more with the orcas too?
Yes, she still does. The trainers were a very important aspect of her early life. Ula is really excited to interact with anyone and very focused on people.
Ula does not seem to have any hearing impairment like her mother, is this true?
Trainers notice that she reacts to whistles. So far there is no reason to believe she has a hearing impairment. She is interacting with other orcas without problem so that gives hints as well that there is no problem.
Is Ula’s father known yet?
Keto was expected by trainers to be the father for a long time, but now it is confirmed by DNA tests as well.
Is there still any scientific research done with Ula?
We did start research on how echo location is first initiated. There are sensors in the pool for that. Other than that we did not have any requests so we haven’t started more research. However, we also documented her entire growth process. This is also valuable research as we now know how to treat very young orcas. For example when there is a stranding or a rejected calf in a zoo. We consider this very important as well.
Are there any abnormalities with Ula, her health or her growth whatsoever?
As stated before, everything is normal
What does the (near) future hold for Ula?
We are aiming on measuring her weight. We are teaching her to jump on the scale. This is of course very important. What we find most important is that she can live amongst the group, be part of the family and that she has all the mental stimulation and enrichment she needs. For her training we focus on teaching her to understand the signals, visual discrimination in different signs and learning to communicate with the other orcas.
Can you tell us a bit about the expansion of the orca habitat?
We are still in the planning phase. We are still deciding how it should look, which dimensions and what kind of pools. We would like to add a pool for research and also a lot of enrichment. Both mental and physical stimulation is important for us. We are looking for all the newest enrichment methods around the world for this. We also need to get the permits and other paperwork done. We expect this to take at least another year before construction can start. Our main goal is to improve the life of the whales. Note of the author: the initiation was planned before COVID19. The interview was conducted in March, right before COVID19 struck. The consequent closure of Loro Parque starting in March might affect these original plans.
I was lucky to join the Orca-Ocean team and Ula over the course of multiple days. I could observe and document Ula in every area of the habitat. I also witnessed some of her training sessions. To take pictures and footage for videos. This is my observation of that period: Ula is very active and energetic. This has been the case ever since I first saw her, shortly after birth. She swims very active with a high pace and surfaces very high and powerfully. She is very curious and always comes to look or gives a glance when you are near the barriers of the habitat. Ula loves enrichment such as toys and there is a whole array that is offered to her. There are also many sessions with her to keep her active and enriched. She is so big already! Especially the last months she grew so rapidly. She really isn't a baby anymore. Her yellow skin also begins to fade already and bottle feeding is a thing of the past. a Remnant of her bottle feeding session can be seen when Ula encounters her trainers and caretakers. She curls up her tongue, like she would around the bottle and makes a short series of sucking noises. It is a kind of greeting to the trainers and very endearing to watch! Even though she eats fish now, she knows the connection between the trainers and the bottle. They have been there for her in the earliest stage of her life. This special little 'greeting' of her own gives her a lot of character.
Ula's skin looks very good. Even her pectoral fin, where she had a minor infection when she was very young looks normal. She has an increased number of scratches and rakemarks since last time. This is the result of meeting and communicating with the other orcas. Adán plays the biggest part in this. He is pretty rough with Ula in an attempt to climb higher in the social hierarchy. Ula does get protection from her mother and even Kohana in this. I was also around the habitat when the animals had their "free-time" session. This is when they can swim freely through the tanks and decide where to swim and with which other animals they want to spend their time. Toys are also offered during this, so they have the option of playing with enrichment. Ula was mostly in the showpool and tried to climb onto the stage several times. This was pretty funny to witness as she can't quite get there fully yet. She also liked playing through the glass. She used some of the enrichment, but her focus did not stay very long on one and the same toy. Often you would see her swim very actively and surfacing wit her head high out of the water. I saw Ula interacting with all the animals. She was almost always together with Morgan, unless the two had to be separated shortly for certain training sessions. It warms my heart to see that the two have such a strong bond. Ula is also very playful and even tries to coax the other orcas into play-behavior. During training sessions she is very alert and has big, focused eyes on her trainers. She learned so much already! Apart from food rewards she loves to be touched. This was her primary reinforcement before she even began to eat fish. When the trainers have one of the "cuddle-sessions" she noticeably enjoys all the touching and attention.
I witnessed Ula growing up during her young life. What I see is a young, strong and active young orca that is well cared for. Every day there is a whole team dedicated to keeping her and her podmates happy, enriched and healthy. I keep finding it absurd that the keeping of orcas at Loro Parque (and in general) has been criticized to such an extent. In my opinion orcas and other dolphins probably have the best and most advanced care of all animals in captivity. The keeping of these animals is so advanced and specialized. There is so much focus on enrichment, training, nutrition, health etc. When animal activists claim that the orcas are not doing well or are even abused I wonder how many of the people that claim this actually went to the park to take a look? (Or even ever saw an orca up close at all?) Did they educate themselves on the behavior of these animals and how zoological facilities take care of them? Whenever I am in Tenerife I also go to the park as a normal visitor for a random multiple days. My observations and findings are not different then compared to the times when I am behind the scenes. It almost seems, like I mentioned in my introduction as if people wánt the animals to be in a bad state. Simply to make a point or to 'win' the discussion. I hope that I can show you with my many blogs, articles and photos that there are always two sides to a story. Here are photos of Ula in every possible setting of the Orca-Ocean, every lighting, every angle and all her bodyparts, so you can judge yourself if she looks healthy and good or not.